Sunday, March 02, 2014

Consider giving newspaper subscriptions gifts and/or buying one or more hard copy subscriptions for delivery to your workplace. Our digest of, and commentary on today's Florida political news and punditry follows.

"Highest Paid Government Workers . . . They’re not who you think they are"

Bill Cotterell: "The idea behind privatizing Florida government services is that it’s supposed to be not only cheaper, but better — to save money for the taxpayers and, just as important, to do the job better than state employees."

That’s how Gov. Jeb Bush pitched it, when he was crafting such deals as the Convergys takeover of state human-resources functions 12 to 16 years ago. It became an article of faith among Republican legislators that anything state employees could do, the private sector could do better and cheaper.

A lot of state employees and their elected representatives, who were Democrats, warned that there was another purpose behind privatization. It makes a lot of money for companies taking over state contracts, and officers of those companies make a lot of contributions to politicians.

We’ll let you take a wild guess at which party grabs most of the gelt[*].

In Tallahassee, privatization started small with Gov. Bob Martinez about 25 years ago. Democrat Lawton Chiles, who beat Martinez in 1990, accelerated it — preferring to call it “outsourcing,” rather than “privatizing” — and Bush made major workforce reductions over his eight years.

Generally, the Bush idea was for agencies to focus on “core missions,” and leave the toll collecting and custodial work for contractors. That came to include a lot of IT work and, inevitably, prisons.

The Center for Media and Democracy recently published a somewhat lurid, deliberately one-sided report, EXPOSED: America’s Highest Paid Government Workers* The asterisk is significant. The subtitle of the report is “They’re not who you think they are.”

In other words, CMD is not talking about some bus driver who piled up months of overtime to pad his pension or an incompetent, petty bureaucrat whose union contract protects her from being fired or replaced. No, the “highest paid government workers” in this report are the men who run giant corporations that get government contracts to do work previously done by state employees.

“Lavish salaries. Platinum health care and retirement plans. Job security despite massive screw-ups,” says the CMD study. “These are the hallmarks of America’s highest paid ‘government workers’ — and they cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”

"It should be mentioned that CMD is not exactly practicing pure science here. The organization is based in Madison, WI., and describes itself as a 'non-partisan progressive watchdog group' involved in 'exposing corporate spin and government propaganda.'"
Anyway, CMD spotlights such civic-minded public servants as Ron Packard, whose K12 Inc. is said to work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to push “virtual” schools. ALEC, as everyone knows, is a shadowy conservative organization whose tentacles ensnare legislators, making them rubberstamp all ideas emanating from its citadel fortress.

The CMD report says Packard was paid $19 million between 2009 and 2013, although only 28 percent of K12 Inc. schools met state standards — compared to 52 percent of public schools.

Then there’s George Zoley of the GEO Group, which runs prisons all over the world. GEO has four of Florida’s six privately run prisons and is a mainstay of the state Republican Party and Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign fund. . . .

“These and other ‘government workers’ who head big firms in the fields of education, corrections, waste management, water treatment, transportation and even social services make billions off of taxpayers,” CMD said, “but muddy accountability and cut corners when it comes to public health and safety."

"Report: Privatizing government work reaps lavish profits for some".

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*Paul Krugman once wrote that "one of [Andrew] Jackson's key legacies was the ''spoils system,'' under which federal jobs were reserved for political supporters. The federal civil service, with its careful protection of workers from political pressure, was created specifically to bring the spoils system to an end; but now the administration has found a way around those constraints."

"We don't have to speculate about what will follow, because Jeb Bush has already blazed the trail. Florida's governor has been an aggressive privatizer, and as The Miami Herald put it after a careful study of state records, 'his bold experiment has been a success -- at least for him and the Republican Party, records show. The policy has spawned a network of contractors who have given him, other Republican politicians and the Florida G.O.P. millions of dollars in campaign donations.'" "Victors and Spoils".

Bargaining begins for one of the largest unionized employers in the country

"The contract talks between Disney World and its unionized employees start Monday. Workers covered in the contract include housekeeper, ride operators, fast food workers, cooks, dishwashers, beverage workers, custodians, ticket-takers and vacation planners. The contract covers about 24,000 fulltime unionized Disney World workers in the Orlando area." "Disney union contract talks start".

Yee Haw!

"Florida's gun-friendly nature will be scrutinized during the 2014 legislative session as bills that would modify the state's "stand your ground" law and another allowing warning shots will be considered, a marked contrast from the 2013 session in which no major gun legislation was passed." "Gun legislation back in the forefront for session".

Scott treats Florida like another corporate acquisition to be dismantled and repackaged

The Tampa Bay Times editors: "Gov. Rick Scott’s bottom line is creating jobs, but he forgets the real Floridians who fill them and the everyday struggles they face. If the governor only had a heart."

This is the tin man as governor, a chief executive who shows no heartfelt connection to the state, appreciation for its values or compassion for its residents.

Duke Energy is charging its electric customers billions for nuclear plants that were botched or never built. Homeowners are being pushed out of the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and into private insurers with higher premiums and no track records. Federal flood insurance rates are soaring so high that many property owners cannot afford the premiums but also cannot sell their homes. The governor sides with the electric utilities and property insurers. He criticizes the president rather than fellow Republicans in Congress for failing to fix the flood insurance fiasco they helped create.

"In Scott's Florida, it is harder for citizens to vote and for the jobless to collect unemployment. It is easier for renters to be evicted and for borrowers to be charged high interest rates on short-term loans. It is harder for patients to win claims against doctors who hurt them and for consumers to get fair treatment from car dealers who deceive them. It is easier for businesses to avoid paying taxes, building roads and repairing environmental damage."
Scott, who moved to Naples just seven years before running for governor, treats Florida like another faceless corporate acquisition to be dismantled and repackaged. Collins created the community college system; Scott ordered the colleges to create a gimmick, a handful of bachelor's degrees that can be purchased for $10,000. Askew established the water management districts and reformed the appointment process for judges; Scott gutted the former and injected more politics into the latter. Gov. Bob Martinez pushed ambitious efforts to manage growth and preserve environmentally sensitive land; Scott decimated both.

The state's refusal to accept billions in federal money illustrates how this governor ignores the needs of everyday residents. He fought the federal Affordable Care Act all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. He stood by as the Legislature turned down $51 billion in federal money to help cover 1 million uninsured residents, and now he refuses to reaffirm even his tepid support for taking the money. Tens of thousands of Floridians are signing up for health coverage in the federal marketplace in spite of a governor who refuses to help them.

Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando was just as callous. At a time when the region was desperate for more jobs, Scott dismissed federal guarantees and let the money go to other states. He called high-speed rail financially risky but then approved far riskier projects to please powerful state legislators. He embraced the expensive SunRail project in Central Florida and the creation of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, a boondoggle that diminished the University of South Florida and will cost taxpayers dearly for generations.

This governor shows little respect for individual rights. He advocated drug testing for state employees and welfare recipients; the courts ruled against him. He pursued a purge of voter rolls that threatened to disenfranchise minority voters; the county elections supervisors revolted. He signed into law restrictions on early voting; the public outcry forced changes.

Scott sides with developers seeking an easier time building their projects, utilities winning routine approval of higher electric rates and health insurers that now need no state approval to raise rates. For homeowners, there is less protection from leaking septic tanks. For motorists stuck in traffic, the governor's solution is more toll roads.

The state spends less per public school student than when Scott took office. Parents and teachers have lost faith in a school accountability system in chaos. College students hear the governor's disdain for a liberal arts education as he demands results on the cheap. Meanwhile, Scott eagerly promises hundreds of millions in tax breaks to businesses pledging to create jobs in future years. His administration approved nearly 350 job creation deals in his first three years in office, but only four jobs have been created for every 100 promised.

"If the governor only had a heart".

Guide to the Session

"Guide to issues in Florida Legislature's 2014 session".

Scott eyeing changes to the state-employee health-insurance program

"Gov. Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers are eyeing changes to the state-employee health-insurance program — including the possibility of new high-deductible plans — that could affect more than 170,000 policy holders." "Lawmakers considering changes to state worker health plans".

Florida "witnessing a more extreme 'hollowing-out' of its middle class than the nation overall"

Aaron Deslatte: "Long-term problems that have not yet reached crisis stage are always easier to ignore, defer or deal with superficially."

Consider a major, sobering study produced by the nonpartisan LeRoy Collins Institute and written by economists James Dewey and David Denslow at the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Among its findings is that Florida's labor force is essentially in long-term decline, both in relative size and skills.

By measuring Florida's gross state product per worker, the analysis shows output per worker in Florida declined from 94.6 percent of the national level in 1993 to 87.7 percent in 2011, a drop interrupted only briefly by the housing boom in the mid-2000s.

With its work force becoming relatively less productive — by essentially having fewer prime-age workers and more low-skill jobs — the state is going to continue witnessing a more extreme "hollowing-out" of its middle class than the nation overall.

Younger workers here are earning a lower percentage of bachelor's degrees, and it isn't yet creating the "agglomeration economies" that lure high-skilled workers.

"Election-year session a time to court voters, contributors".

Watching Weatherford

"Why Will Weatherford is worth watching this year".

Stupid is . . .

"Across Florida, top-ranking public schools and highly-thought-of teachers are learning that the state's newest model for quantifying teacher quality, called VAM for Value-added Model, is tarnishing their reputation." "Data shows one-third of Florida's top educators have students progressing below expectations".

"In the midnight hour"

Joe Henderson on Arizona's recent experience with a bill that would have sanctioned discrimination in the name of religious freedom: "Even Arizona legislators who voted for it were asking Brewer to save them from themselves when they saw how bad the law really was. It all sounds ridiculous, but beware. You never know what might bubble up out of our state Legislature in the midnight hour."

I posed that hypothetical Friday to Mike Fasano, a Republican who served many years in the Legislature before taking over the Pasco County tax collector’s office in 2013. He knows how these things work.

“Sometimes there are so many bills being filed, going through the process, that most of these members will never see a bill until it gets to the floor,” he said. “They are so focused on their own bills that they don’t understand the consequences of a bill until after the fact.

“To be honest, I’m surprised the leadership of the Arizona Legislature allowed that bill to come to the floor.”

Unless, of course, the leadership has its own agenda. Fasano knows how that works. During a battle over prison privatization in 2012, he was chair of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice budget committee. Senate President Mike Haridopolos needed the committee to keep a bill moving that could have led to privatized prisons in an 18-county area, but Fasano balked against the leader of his own party. He wouldn’t let the bill be heard.

So, Haridopolos booted Fasano off the committee and reintroduced the bill through another committee.

“I had never seen something like that before,” Fasano said. “But that’s how leadership can get any bill they want to the floor of their respective chamber.”

The bill eventually died, but it was an object lesson in how rough the game of politics can be.

"Arizona madness a cautionary tale for everyone in Florida".

"Unprecedented arms race for cash"

"Money has long commanded attention in the Florida Legislature. But a new campaign finance law has ignited an unprecedented arms race for cash among some key lawmakers." "A torrent of cash is flowing through Tallahassee as lawmakers prepare for 60-day annual session". See also "Political campaign fundraisers lose the frills".

Tally's version of health care reform

"Large Miami-area hospitals serving many Medicaid patients and uninsured Floridians are expected to be hard hit under a new funding law. . . . Lawmakers passed the Medicaid funding reforms in 2011 with the intent of making the statewide distribution of funds more equitable." "Large hospitals to be hard hit by planned cuts". See also "Jackson Memorial Hospital expected to lose $140 million under new Medicaid law".

Florida suddenly worried about Korea trade

We're sure the folks in Detroit are sensitive to Florida's sudden concern about trade with Korea.

"Florida citrus growers, alarmed about South Korea squeezing their business, are pushing U.S. officials to settle a tariff dispute they say is costing them millions of dollars in sales."

The fight, which began last year, centers on U.S. exports of frozen orange-juice concentrate to South Korea and comes while the industry is struggling with a devastating plant disease called citrus greening.

For years, South Korea had levied a 54 percent tariff on the product, making sales prohibitively expensive and keeping U.S. exports low.

But under a trade agreement that took effect two years ago, the tariff disappeared, leading to an explosion in U.S. business. Exports of frozen orange-juice concentrate to South Korea jumped from $11 million in 2011 to $30 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It was a promising expansion for the $9 billion Florida citrus industry, which grows the majority of oranges used in U.S. juice, including concentrate.

The good times didn't last long, however.

"U.S. citrus industry feuds with South Korea over frozen OJ".

Miami-Dade lawmakers join forces

"State lawmakers from Miami-Dade are joining forces to win a greater share of state funding. But issues like gaming and subsidies for sports teams could prove divisive." "Once divided, Miami-Dade state lawmakers rally together for funding".